Come playoffs, it's Heat
The team most likely to finish first in the conference during the regular season?
That would be the Bulls, with coach Tom Thibodeau relentlessly pushing his team through this lockout-compressed grinder of a schedule. Look no further than Sunday's box score. The Bulls had Derrick Rose playing all but 31/2 minutes against the Heat in the first game of a back-to-back set.
The team most likely to advance to the NBA Finals?
Considering the Bulls got just one game from the Heat in last season's Eastern Conference finals, there is little reason to envision any other outcome, in light of how similar these teams remain to last season.
Bulls will challenge
The Heat beat the Bulls on Sunday. The Heat eliminated the Bulls in last spring's playoffs in five games. And the Heat have two bona fide superstars (plus Chris Bosh) to the Bulls' one.
So, Miami is the best team in the East.
Entering Monday, the Bulls had allowed opponents to shoot 42.7 percent from the field, and the Heat had allowed opponents to shoot 42.8 percent. That difference is negligible.
But Miami was shooting 48.3 percent, while Chicago was at 45.9 percent.
The Heat simply have more weapons.
But the Heat and Bulls likely will face each other in the playoffs, and the playoffs are the time when the Bulls can prove themselves.
Stars give Heat edge
The Heat are the best team in the East, and, barring major injuries, they will prove it yet again to the Bulls in the Eastern Conference finals.
Miami has upgraded its depth with Shane Battier and Norris Cole and a healthy Udonis Haslem. And the Heat can have two or three All-Stars on the court at all times in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
The Bulls have Rose and an almost-All-Star in Luol Deng, who is borderline elite for his versatility, not his ability to create. As good as the Bulls are defensively, stopping three primary scorers four times in seven games is too tough a task. And that will apply to the Western Conference as well when the Heat win the NBA Finals.
Heat have jelled
No longer do LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh play awkward basketball. They look like teammates.
No longer do the other Heat players look like uniform fillers. They look like teammates.
James is the top scorer (29.5 points a game), but while Wade's (19.9) and Bosh's (21.4) numbers are down, the offense is more potent. That's partly because someone aside from those three (Mario Chalmers) is averaging double-digit points and another guy (Norris Cole) can hit that number too.
The Mavericks took the NBA title a season ago when the Heat were a talented enough team but not enough of a team overall. This season, the Heat are, finally, both.